There is a US federal bill currently being considered by Congress that has the opportunity to make a tremendous impact on the health of our children and the planet: it’s called the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Act (HR 4108). This legislation, introduced by Representatives Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) earlier this year, would provide a grant to eligible school districts to get the resources they need to serve more plant-based meal options.
The Demand For Plant-Based School Lunches
Research shows that school-age students and their parents want more plant-based options. “As usual, our young people understand this best,” stated Representative Bowman in a press release. “[S]tudents and their families have been clamoring for healthy, plant-based, and culturally appropriate meal options at school,” he said.
The international insight and trends firm Wunderman Thompson Intelligence reports that Gen Z, which currently encompasses 6-24-year-olds, is the most vocal about driving positive change around planetary health. In a survey earlier this year of 3,000 people in the U.S., U.K., and China, 71% of Gen Zers said they would be willing to eat more alternative proteins in order to help the environment.
Unfortunately, plant-based options are just not available in US schools despite growing demand from students. For example, a recent analysis from Friends of the Earth (FOE) found that only 4% of lunch entrees in California schools were plant-based, most of which were pre-packaged nut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“This legislation will help schools overcome barriers – such as lack of funding and technical assistance – in order to meet the demand from students for plant-based options,” said Representatives Velasquez and Bowman in a Statement of Need for the legislation.
Specifically, the bill aims to provide schools with the funding needed for additional culinary training, establishing new supplier partnerships, and providing nutrition education for students.
Promoting Healthy Eating Habits in Schools
The science is clear that eating a more plant-forward diet is healthier for both children and adults alike. The FOE analysis points out that “[t]hree of the most frequently offered menu items (meat pizza, hot dogs and deli meats) contain processed meats,” which according to World Health Organization definitions, are Group 1 carcinogens along with cigarettes and asbestos.
Leading public health organizations agree on the benefits of eating more whole, plant-based foods in place of meat. The American Heart Association shares on its website that eating less meat decreases a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and many cancers.
Dr. James Madera of the American Medical Association (AMA) provided recommendations to the USDA in a letter in 2020, stating that “[d]airy and meat products are promoted in federal nutrition policies even though they are not nutritionally required.” He went on to say that “Black Americans are at particularly high risk for prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and cardiovascular mortality, and prostate and colorectal cancers are strongly linked to dairy, processed meat, and red meat consumption.”
Fighting Against Inequitable Food Policies
In fact, offering more plant-based options is the more appropriate choice for not just Black Americans, but also many of the other minority groups that span the diverse student population across the US public school system. The current requirement in the federal nutrition guidelines is that dairy be offered without any plant-based alternative, unless a doctor’s note is provided. The National Institutes of Health states that 95% of Asians, between 60% to 80% of African Americans, 80% to 100% of American Indians, and 50% to 80% of Hispanics are unable to process lactose, while those of Northern European origin only have an intolerance of about 2%.
There is clearly a stark contrast of lactose intolerance between nonwhite communities compared to those of Northern European origin. Nevertheless, dairy milk remains federally subsidized in schools while other drink options are not. In fact, the Washington Post reported that while water must be offered by schools, the USDA does not allow schools to offer it in place of milk and it “must not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk.”
This legislation, if passed, offers a way to put an end to the discrimination against nonwhite students when it comes to the dairy served as part of US school food, since the majority of students who cannot process lactose are nonwhite.
Importantly, the grants established by this legislation will be awarded to schools that have a high proportion of students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds and who serve a high proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, thus giving our country’s most vulnerable students the chance to eat healthy, culturally-appropriate meals that help them to be better prepared for school each day.
Eating to Protect the Future of their Planet
Offering more plant-based meals at school is not just better for students’ health, but it’s also better for the health of their planet. Leading environmental organizations have already reached a consensus on this. For example, the EAT-Lancet report, published in 2019, was the first full scientific review from experts around the world which aimed to answer one question- which diet will feed a future population of 10 billion people in 2050 within planetary boundaries? Their answer was the Planetary Health Diet, a plant-forward diet emphasizing whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes over meat and dairy. The United Nations, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, and countless other organizations all agree.
“At the same time as we invest urgently in the transition to renewable energy, we must build sustainable food systems at every level of our society — and our public education system can lead the way,” said Representative Bowman in a press release.
With over 7 billion meals served in US public schools every year, the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Act (HR4108) provides a tremendous opportunity to invest in the health of our children and the planet by offering more plant-based meal options at school.
“Every child deserves healthy, nutritious, and sustainable meals that respects their choice,” said Representative Velázquez in a press release. “I’m proud to champion legislation that would deliver food justice for all and build a greener, healthier future for our kids,” she said.
What You Can Do
You can support this federal bill by calling or writing to your federal Representative! Call (202) 224-3121. You’ll be asked to enter your zip code to be routed to your legislator. Tell them you want more plant-based options at your local school because it supports the health of our kids and the planet!
Go to this website for instructions on how to find your legislator and even a pre-written letter to send to them!
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